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Furthermore! – When ‘Experts’ Aren’t

February 13, 2013

Furthermore

Furthermore! – When ‘Experts’ Aren’t

I wasn’t in any of the cable news executives’ meetings yesterday afternoon. I haven’t spoken with them, or anyone who knows them. But that won’t stop me from telling you what they were thinking. (More)

You can trust me on this, because I’m BPI’s roving reporter. That makes me a journalist, sort of, and that means I’m qualified to discuss the thoughts, fears, and intentions of any journalist or news executive.

For example, when the Chris Dorner manhunt came to a head in California yesterday, cable news executives huddled to discuss whether they should cover it 44 minutes of each hour – all but the average 16 minutes per hour of ads on cable television – or cancel the commercial breaks and go with wall-to-wall coverage. They recognized that Los Angeles is the second largest television media market in the U.S.. They feared losing audience share during Neilsen’s February sweeps period, on which ad rates for the next quarter are based.

Once law enforcement officials asked the FAA to close the airspace around the cabin where Dorner was believed to be hiding, studio hosts could no longer speculate on video footage of the cops were doing. Having decided to go wall-to-wall with the manhunt, these executives had to avoid dead air. So they called up the usual experts: former FBI profilers, psychologists, and anyone else willing to speculate on the thoughts, fears, and intentions of Chris Dorner, despite the fact that none of these experts had spoken with Dorner or anyone who knew him. Because if your network doesn’t interview these people, another network will, and they may get a few precious Nielsen points.

I even put lots of factual sources in that, so you know it’s all true.

Except, of course, that I didn’t talk to any of those news executives, or anyone who knows them. I’m just guessing about what went through their minds. Some of my guesses might be right. Some might be completely wrong. But by the time any of them comment on their decisions – if ever they do – you’ll have forgotten all about this column. So you won’t doubt my qualifications the next time I speculate….

But I’m not here to rant about the wall-to-wall speculathon of yesterday afternoon and evening. In the big scheme of things, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Except it is, because on cable news groundless speculation is not limited to the thoughts of a suspected killer holed up in a cabin and surrounded by police. As Paul Krugman writes, it has infected policy coverage as well. After presenting data to disprove MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s claim about “explosive economic growth,” Krugman writes:

How do JoScar and others like him come by such misconceptions?

Well, I’ve gradually come to the realization that most of the commentariat doesn’t do what, say Martin Wolf or I do – grub around in published data, read reports, and all that. Instead, they rely on what they heard somebody say the facts are; hearsay economics. Of course, they don’t listen to any old bum on the street; they listen to people of repute, people in their circle. But the repute in question has nothing to do with technical expertise; hey, Admiral Mullen is a serious person, so if he says something on any subject, such as economics, it must be solid.

And where do the reputable people get their information? Why, it’s what they heard somebody in their circle say. It’s hearsay economics all the way down.

In fact, far too much of our ‘news’ consists of hosts interviewing ‘experts’ who have no data to back up their claims, or parroting the words of such ‘experts’ from off-air conversations.

Sometimes these ‘experts’ have worked in the fields they are discussing. And if they’re offering general comments – what usually happens in a hostage situation, or the general historical relationship between GDP growth and deficits – then they really are experts. But when these people start talking about a specific situation, without specific data, your television screen should have scare-quotes in the corners. They’re not real experts anymore. They’re ‘experts’ passing off speculation as information.

Of course, the cable news executives don’t dare put those scare-quotes on the screen, or you might change the channel and cost them precious Nielsen points. Admittedly, I haven’t talked with any of them, or anyone who knows them, and I have no specific data on that. But I’m BPI’s roving reporter – a journalist – and that makes me … an ‘expert.’

Good day and good nuts.

3 Responses to “Furthermore! – When ‘Experts’ Aren’t”

  1. Norbrook Says:

    One of the down sides of “24 hour news channels” is that they feel obligated to fill air time no matter what. That results in their having a stable of “experts” who mainly end up having to expound on something they have no clue about. Krugman has often found himself out on a limb when he starts talking politics instead of economics, because he’s relying on the same thing: He’s a Nobel winning economist, not a political expert. ;-)

  2. winterbanyan Says:

    Great takedown of cable news, pundits and their so-called experts. No ethical psychologist would attempt to diagnose, or describe the suspected motivations of someone they’ve never interviewed.

    As for “profilers,” they operate from a hodgepodge of things they’ve learned about similar killers in the past and create a pastiche which is often entirely wrong. Amazing how many of these killers are “anomalies” after the fact.

    Wall-to-wall coverage of the Dorner thing irritated the hell out of me. I get the Nielsen points thing, and I can think of no other good reason for this speculathon.

  3. addisnana Says:

    The coverage of Dorner reminded me of seeing OJ driving down the freeway in his white bronco. Neither one deserved any coverage at all in my mind. All the “experts” are just hot air. I have a particular dislike of those who are making psychiatric diagnoses never having seen the person in person. This should be some kind of malpractice.